Commentary Magazine


Separation

Saturday morning: Steven Eskanazzi, twenty-seven, graduate student, Orthodox rabbi, is awakened by the clattering, chattering handle of a child’s wagon as it rolls downhill on the sidewalk three stories below his bedroom window, gathering speed, faster and faster, more speed—a jarring smack. He tumbles out of his vibrant dream and the dream surges on without him, its matter gone instantly but the after-image lingering like camera flashes as he lies in bright sunlight. He is calmly jubilant, although on awakening he still half-expects to be in Israel (he has been back in New York only a few days), where his bedroom ceiling was lower and the air was dry and smelled of dust and roses.

He grabs a black knit yarmulke off the nightstand and clips it to his hair, says the brief prayer on awakening and rolls smoothly, bracing himself with one hand, hunching his shoulders, onto the floor. The floor is triumphant in sunlight. The dream had something to do with women. The world of femaleness is separated from him by, what, two layers of cloth? Less? He hears his roommate Rafi in the kitchen. “Melman!” he shouts, his voice filling with laughter. “Hey, Reb Rafi!” He has no plans for what to say. He assumes his voice will find something.

The door pushes open and Rafi Melman looms upside-down in his long white bathrobe as Steven peers from the floor. “What’re you doing down there?” Voice smiling, as usual.

“It’s such a great day, I’ve decided to save the world.”

“Yeah?”

“I’m gonna do”—Steven’s voice reaching out with a stressed syllable to hold Rafi back as he’s about to walk off—“exactly what Libbie asked. Save her cousin from disgracing herself by marrying the big German Schweinhundt.”

“Yeah? How? Baloney. Are you gonna just lie there?”

“Why not? Understand I am not gonna sleep with Jackie. Not even make a pass at Jackie. Just fascinate Jackie. Just make Jackie fall in love with me. Just enough so she dumps the German.”

“You’re nuts,” says Rafi, and walks out. Steven slides on his back to the doorway (pushing with his feet on the warm wooden floor), slips his head out and shouts toward the kitchen: “I’m not.” Gets to his feet and dusts himself off with glancing karate-chops. “Stealing Jackie from this guy is the right thing to do and I am gonna do it.”

Meshugge,” Rafi calls back. “All right, forget it, it’s shabbes.”

Steven’s future is bright and clear: finish his thesis research at Yeshiva University and Columbia by the end of the spring, start writing his dissertation this summer, get his doctorate in Bible a year from June—and even though the academic job market is tight, he is already known to be a budding star and ought to get offers not only from Jewish but from major secular institutions. Several university presses are interested in his thesis, which will be called Five Pictures Transcribed from Torah and should attract attention in its own right.

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More important, he is buoyant with dream-juice and lemonade sunshine and the imminence of femaleness. He has even rediscovered the name he’d been trying to remember all day yesterday: Barukh Merkan. He had reached for it repeatedly but each time it would dart sideways out of his grasp, silver fish in the dark pool of memory. Merkan was the young high-school science teacher who had once told seventeen-year-old Steven to take responsibility for the world. Steven wants to speak with Merkan, to bring Merkan’s moral authority to bear like a brilliant spotlight on his plans for Jackie.

Five minutes later he is standing in the bathroom doorway, drumming the jamb and calling to Rafi down the tall narrow hallway. “Well, what the hell is the point, I ask you, if you’ve got a friend who’s got a cousin who’s in trouble,” meaning Libbie whose cousin is threatening to marry the German, “and this friend is so sweet, so sincere, so upset, and you can do something. . . . And I can do something. And I ought to do something. And I will do something. Otherwise how come I’m a rabbi anyway? How come I’m not a pig dealer in Nebraska?”

He steps across the hall to his bedroom and lunges onto the bed, making the frame groan an inch or two forward in disgust. “Isn’t there something in the New Testament about how you shouldn’t put your light underneath something—hide it . . . under . . .,” groping for the word but refusing to give up the momentum of his chatter, his downhill bicycle dash: the whirring whine, faster and faster. He thinks of the child’s wagon that woke him this morning. “A bushel. Whatever that means. A bushel of what?”

“How should I know,” says Rafi quietly, stopping at the bedroom door on his way back to the kitchen. He’s a rabbi also. “Calm down.”

“Lucky I’m not a minister. I would be a total flop.”

“Do we have to talk this way on shabbes? Shabbes ha-godel?” The Sabbath before Passover.

“You’re right, I’m sorry, temporary insanity.”

Ten minutes later Rafi is leaning against the kitchen counter with half a spongecake in hand, taking nibbled bites from the corner, gathering the crinkled wrapper underneath. Steven opens a cupboard and searches the shelves and talks, lofted like a kite by dream-breezes: “Possibly my motives are corrupt. Possibly all I want to do is impress Libbie. Possibly my only goal is not to disappoint Libbie. But when a girl thinks you’re a hero, a man’s got to try. At least try.” He is talking even faster than usual. “But it’s also possible that my motives are pure. Anyway there’s an argument that says they are.”

Pure”—stumbling over a mouthful of spongecake; waiting for the traffic jam to clear—“get outta here. It’s a totally crazy and arrogant thing to do. Crazy, arrogant plan—”

Steven tugs open the refrigerator, takes out a carton of milk, lets the heavy door kiss closed. He pours milk on cereal in a. bowl, studying the live white column.

“One! You can’t make a girl fall in love with you just like that, just ’cause you decide to. You think it’s gonna impress her that you’re a big talmid hokhem? A girl like that? She’s been playing around with you. Try to get serious and then you’ll get the picture. Two! All right, never mind, it’s shabbes.”

“No, go ahead,” says Steven. “Tell me two.”

“Two: if you claim that you’re not gonna sleep with her, you’re deliberately putting yourself in an impossible position. Three, it’s immoral.”

Steven answers in talmudic Hebrew: just the opposite.

“And if you do sleep with her, aside from the halakhic and moral issue, it’s not exactly a brilliant community-leader-type move. Here everyone is crazy and confused”—it’s 1978—“and the hottest question around is, ‘When you go see your girl on Saturday night, do you take your t’fillin with you?’ ” The question had recently been posed from an Orthodox pulpit, and everyone was talking about it: an adult male needs t’fillin to pray, but only in the morning. Is Orthodox Judaism compatible with the sexual revolution? The short answer was no. “If this community is facing some kind of moral crisis . . . what a dumb, stupid game.” Rafi has no reason to feel jubilant. Steven’s jubilation is annoying. He walks off toward his bedroom.

“How can you dismiss—” Steven calls after him, “I mean, this is a Jewish girl, she’s going around with a German, are you telling me it doesn’t matter? That’s not a moral crisis? And I am not gonna sleep with her!”

Meshugge!” Rafi calls back and continues in Hebrew, paraphrasing a Midrash: “Pride is idolatry. Defiles the land. Removes the shekhinah. You’ll accomplish zero, zero, at best! That’s if you’re lucky. If you’re lucky you’ll accomplish zero.” He puts his head out the door: “And how can you do this to Libbie? I mean. . . .”

But then he changes his mind, waves the topic away, and closes the door behind him.

“What’re you talking about? It’s her idea. You think I thought this up?”

Through the closed door: “Her idea—yeah, right.”

“It was! Of course it was!”

The door opens again. “Shlemiel! That’s not the point. You said yourself Libbie is in love with you, or you think she is—okay—so she tells you: go make this big play for my cousin. Okay. And you do it? Fine, honey, anything you say?”

Steven frowns intently.

“If she handed you a loaded pistol and said, ‘please shoot me, because blah blah blah, it’s a mitzvah’—would you do it?”

“It isn’t. . . .” He stops short, then starts again. “She isn’t saying I should actually fall in love with anyone.”

Shlemiel.” Rafi pulls the door closed again. “I don’t understand. Right. Tell me about it.”

Half an hour later they are preparing to walk to synagogue and Steven asks, “You think she’ll actually come?” And Rafi answers “How should I know?”

Jackie had promised to be in synagogue this morning to hear Steven lecture. The prospect of her presence is a drumroll in the pit of his stomach.

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Jackie wakes up with Klaus beside her. He’s awake already, lying silently. “Get out of here,” she says. “I need to get dressed.”

“You’re actually going? To hear that rabbi?” His voice strained and hunting, unsteadily. “The fierce, fighting rabbi?” Only the other night Steven had picked a fight with Klaus in a restaurant, with Jackie and Libbie looking on. Klaus could have flattened him but didn’t, out of pure—as Klaus saw it—gentlemanliness.

“Sure.”

“How long till you’re back?”

“Fifteen years.” She dislikes being questioned. Anyway there is something too pink and innocent about him. It’s worst in the morning. She lets him stay over Fridays and Saturdays.

When she reappears from the bathroom he launches himself across the bed and grabs her wrist to pull her down. With his other hand he takes the hem of her baby-blue nightgown and draws it slowly and deliberately upward, playfully frowning, a child concentrating on a crayon drawing. With a quick casual wriggle she makes it easier for him to pull it higher; but she is staring blankly at the ceiling.

“Hello, anyvun home?”

Silence.

He sighs and rolls heavily back to his side of the bed. “You look so beautiful like that”—resonant worshipful tones, an organ pipe humming sadly to itself. “So . . . exposed. I vish I could say it more poetically.” A meticulous soft tapdance of t’s and d’s.

She lies for a moment motionless, distracted; then stands abruptly, the nightgown uncrumpling itself, tumbling back into place. “How could anything be more poetic than that? God. I love lying around like a bump on a log and seeing my girlfriend strip. La dee-da dee-da.”

He raises himself on one arm as she goes to the closet and pages quickly (tick-tick-tick) through dresses on hangers. Plastic dry-cleaner bags billowing-out: delicate dry crackles. “It’s just like you,” her voice turning porcelain-hard and dry, “lying around with your tongue hanging out like a dead dog. I had a guy once,” pulling three candidates off the rack, tossing them in a soft insinuating pile over the back of a desk chair, “who used to make me do what he wanted.” Jockeying open a stuck dresser drawer (it yields with a mocking yawp), impatiently yanking out stockings, a slip, two items of underwear, dusky rose. Throwing them on her side of the gaping bed. Glancing at a grease-black fly droning near the ceiling. He is about to speak but she disappears into the bathroom again and, moments later, the angry oblivious beat of the shower.

He lies back. Ten minutes later she emerges with a towel on her head.

“He made you? You liked that? That he made you?”

“’Course not. I dumped him, didn’t I? My point is,” stepping into panties, hopping on one foot as she grabs the other behind her and peers at a small cut on her sole, then perching on the bed and gathering the right stocking-leg on her forearm—spreading her fingers, critically appraising—“my point is, that you would never get the point. Ever. Ever. Ever.”

“Well,” thickly accusing, “I would never hurt you.” She grimaces. Some other thought is moving through her head, beating past like an express subway without stopping.

“Why can’t you treat me nice, as you do when your so-terribly-anxious cousin is around? Who always looks like she’s about to cry?” Jackie’s cousin Libbie, who stares at Klaus with trembling tragic gazes—which Klaus finds exceptionally arousing.

Silence. At length he adds, “How did he make you?”

“Forget it, I wouldn’t want to shock you.”

“But how? How did he make you?”

She disappears into the bathroom again.

_____________

 

Steven and Rafi are walking side by side down the Manhattan sidewalk to synagogue. “When a goy dishonors a Jewish girl,” Steven is saying, “Libbie is absolutely right, the whole Jewish community has a strong obligation and I mean strong, I mean strong, to care about it.”

“Yeah, yeah. Sure. But do you really care? Yesterday you were telling me that Libbie’s plan was the stupidest idea you ever heard, and Jackie was a twerp. How come you changed your mind so totally?”

“I don’t know. I’m no psychoanalyst. But anyway I did.” Rafi looks at the ground and feels the squares of the sidewalk passing under his feet as if he were stationary and his footsteps were pulling them forward. A mouse in an exercise wheel. Making the whole city revolve. The whole heavy earth. “Remember Barukh Merkan?” Steven asks.

“I had him for chemistry.”

Hu hoyo omer,” says Steven in rabbinic Hebrew—he used to say, “that a man has to accept responsibility for the world in an active sense. Do something, not just talk. And he was so quiet, and he made this sort of pronouncement so rarely, that you really listened when he talked. These last few days he’s just sort of come back to me.”

Merkan’s shy, sad blue eyes had unsettling mysteries moving through them—deep solemn thoughts gliding silently on the other side. He was always nervous in class. You would see him swallow, Adam’s apple trembling; see the hand passed tentatively (searching for nonexistent reassurance) over the back of his head. He was short, built like a boxer, suit jackets always tight across the shoulders. His knitted yarmulkes conservative. “We assumed he was some kind of radical,” Steven continues. “Some kind of SDS guy. Remember? Everyone was shocked, y’know?—you remember?—when he joined the army. I couldn’t believe it. He went to Vietnam, right?”

“Marines. Yeah, Vietnam.”

“Marines, same thing.”

“The marines are tougher.”

“Fine, they’re tougher. What happened to him over there?”

“No idea. He went, and he came home, and that’s all I know.”

A half-block later Steven asks, “Was he the only Jew in Vietnam?”

“Of course not. What the hell kind of question is that? That’s sort of an annoying question.”

A few paces more and Steven says, “Annoying questions are the only kind worth asking.”

Rafi waves the statement away and stamps a pained face, like a wax seal, on the whole conversation. “If you cared about Libbie, the whole thing wouldn’t even come up.”

“It’s davka because I do care about her that it is coming up!” Exasperation, for the first time this morning.

Rafi shrugs. “You’ve got it davka,” exactly, “upside down.”

On her way out, Jackie relents (seeing Klaus so forlorn over his coffee at the kitchen table); approaching from behind she gives him a teasing small poke on his left shoulder and then kisses his right cheek. He puts his hand on her waist and draws her close. He nestles his head on her hip. “I like your perfume. Is it the one I gave you?”

“Yes. It’s nice.”

“You never cry, do you?”

She shrugs.

“I vish I could reach you somehow.”

She sings a snatch: “ ‘I’ve just gotta get a message to you. . . .’ Old song. Really old.” She pulls free and heads for the door; pauses before a mirror. Considers carefully. “Too bad hats are obsolete. I look good in a hat. My mom used to make me wear them, when I was a kid.”

She sets off.

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The Synagogue is celebrated for its architecture, an octagonal drum of amber stucco with four narrow bands of stained-glass lights—triangles, squares, and circles in magenta and ultramarine, verdigris and amber. If you entered in front and walked forward, you found yourself looking down over a railing to the floor of the main prayer hall fifteen feet below. There were only sixty-odd seats down there, half for men and the other half, behind a waist-high partition, for women, but the rest of the structure rose in a series of galleries giving out directly onto the prayer space. When it was full, hundreds of people were seated along the galleries, the whole building resounded and the main floor below felt like a village courtyard. In the evenings, hundreds of lit candles in stained-glass cups in hanging silver lamps; daytimes (at the right moment) there were magenta and ultramarine, verdigris and amber shadows on the north wall.

But she makes her way, as directed, to a meeting room in the rear, where every week an early prayer service finishes in time for a rabbi to lecture for the rest of the morning. The room had emptied out partially and is now refilling in anticipation of Steven’s talk. She sits toward the back. Neat rows of chairs, swaying forward and back in little jerks as the crowd filters in. She closes her eyes.

The conversation is pleasantly separate from her. She crosses her legs and clasps her hands over the soft knit on the narrow arched summit of her knee, regal composure—ten minutes of drifting sleepy thought, carried like a bottle in the ocean by the crowd sounds, swelling and deepening, growing smoother and heavier as the room fills. Then a different noise makes her open her eyes and she notices people standing along both sides and sees (turning around) that every seat is taken and that there are standees in back, too. Up front a man has entered, a slim black shape moving quickly, and a bunch of people have gotten to their feet and are greeting him. Through gaps she can see it is Steven, with an eager suspended half-smile—he is desperate to sit down, face the crowd, and begin.

He is going to present for the first time a piece of the theory he has been developing that Judaism’s basic ideas are pictures and not words.

Two men trail behind Steven. Jackie recognizes one as Rafi Melman. Now more people are getting to their feet (rustle of dresses, rising-upward voices) and she hears Steven rattling off responses at top speed (“gut shabbes, gut shabbes, thank you, thanks, thanks, gut shabbes”) and still more people are rising, and he keeps smiling and answering—and then an implicit collective decision has been reached and the whole room is getting to its feet, chairscrapes racketing from all over and she stands too amid the high-pitched leaping buzzy chatter. Steven reaches his destination, the center chair behind a long table with a white cloth and two large maroon books with Hebrew lettering in gold on the spines, and a small thick book and a water pitcher and a glass.

She has never seen him so crisp and commanding and present. Neat dark dignified suit, tie, yarmulke; lights bristling in his eyes, crowds of lights. He draws back his chair and pauses, hand on the back, to acknowledge one more greeting from the front corner, and then sees her—and their exchange of smiles is so direct two ladies one row in front of her turn and skim her with quick glances, then look inquiringly at each other, smothering their smiles between pressed lips.

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Now he sits and the crowd deflates comfortably into its chairs. A youngish crowd—men in suits and ties and knit yarmulkes, women in dresses, the married ones with stylish head-scarves. To her surprise two Hasids stand side by side toward the back, in hats and beards and tzitzis and black coats, chatting intently. Rabbi Eskanazzi’s first words (“On this shabbes before Pesah, shabbes ha-godel, I want to ask this question . . .”) ring clearly in the big hollow-sounding space. Hisses break out demanding quiet; a few hushed conversations sprint to a close. His voice dominates the room. “We know that Exodus is associated with Creation; the rabbis speak of Exodus as a second creation. But what exactly ties the creation of the world to the escape from Egypt? It’s a theme we can state precisely,” and somehow she feels herself expanding. She has to fold her arms, hug her chest and pull her crossed legs tight to hold herself back, hold herself in.

“But the theme isn’t a word or a statement. The theme is a picture. A picture of separation. Havdoleh, separation: that’s the theme; God separates the waters of the Red Sea so that am yisroel,” the people of Israel, “can escape. And the creation of the world, too, is a story of separation.”

The hoarseness of his voice makes it more expressive. “I don’t think much of mixing science with Torah study; it adds nothing. But let me mention one thing, just one deep fact about the universe. The laws of thermodynamics. Entropy increases; disorder increases; separations disappear, useful energy turns to junk: friction, heat. That’s nature, the way of the world; separations vanish. Now comes Torah and says: the essence of creation, of God’s intervention in the world, is separation. The actual work of creation is the work of separation.” He quotes in Hebrew and then translates: “ ‘God separated the light from the darkness.’ ‘Let there be a separation, water from water.’ This is a crucial step; it makes room for heaven and earth between the ocean of rainwater above and seawater beneath. ‘Let there be lights in the expanse of heaven, to separate the day from the night.’ ‘To separate between the light and the darkness.’

“And destruction, anti-creation, is the disappearance of separation: it’s no accident that the central act of destruction in Torah, the historically decisive one that launches Israel as a nation, happens when the waters of yam suf,” the Red Sea, “roll back together again. Primal chaos. Chaos caused by what? But wait—

“The image of separation appears most powerfully in Torah at Creation and Exodus. In other words, at the creation of the world and the creation of Israel.” Swaying slightly forward and back; underlining his words with sweeps of his closed fist and outstretched thumb, his eyes intensely concentrated on a point ten feet in front of him. People lean forward to listen.

“Our rabbis of blessed memory understand, of course: separation in and of itself has cosmic significance, moral significance—to make separations is to defy nature. Nature, they understand, runs automatically toward togetherness, mush; and so they say, in one of the most important statements in Midrash—explaining the Torah verse, ‘You shall be holy because I the Lord am Holy’—it means, they explain, that ‘as I am separated, so you shall be separated.’ God creates man from mud, from ‘ofor min ha’adomoh,’ dirt from the earth, mud; it’s easy to mix colors and get mud. Hard to take mud and separate it back into colors. This is a theme of Torah. A hidden but powerful theme, running under the surface.

“Holiness is separation, because separation is creation—the prism creating colors out of white blankness.

“Exodus, escape from Egypt: a picture from God to man, a direct communication stronger, deeper than words: why was Israel made? What does Israel do? What is Israel’s duty as a chosen people? I return to my previous question: what held back the chaos of the Red Sea?

“Only Israel, on God’s behalf. We were created as a nation at the moment we were stretched out, strung out against chaos, holding the sea apart. Our job is to separate the sea—alone, straggling, struggling, chased by killers. In one picture the Torah says this all; we only have to read the picture. Exodus is a second creation, a second parting of waters—but this time the barrier between water and water is Israel—and if Israel fails, separation and hence creation itself are undone. I’m telling you p’shat, plain sense! Torah says this—not in words but in pictures. The words of Torah express ideas not the way we do, always explicit and spelled out; the N’tziv, Rabbi Berlin of Volozhin, says that the whole of Torah is song, poetry.

“This explains, I think, a comment of Ramban. Ramban asks—” But now her mind is revisiting a Sunday morning once when Steven appeared out of nowhere in her backyard in the cool summer silence. She was pinning laundry to the rope ribs of the umbrella-shaped drying rack; she was thirteen. He lived two blocks over. He was cutting through her yard to reach a friend’s house. He had never done it before, and never did it again. She couldn’t recall their speaking a single word, but then somehow they were sitting side by side on the wooden steps leading up to her back door. The lawn had been cut the night before; the dew clumped the cut grass; the morning smelled grassy-cool, with a white butterfly scrambling like scrap paper amid the tumbling pink roses. Slant shadows of the early morning, with woven-in birdsong—fingers through her hair or plastic streamers (luminous red and blue, purple, yellow and green) flying backward from her bicycle handlebars.

“And separation,” he is saying, “is easy to destroy. Nothing is easier than to tear down the mehitzah”—the barrier separating men and women at an Orthodox prayer service. “But once you pull it down, it’s hard to put back.” They only sat together, she thirteen, he fourteen—sharing silence side by side, one Coke two straws; but for a couple of minutes they had stopped being children and slipped into adulthood. Only, someone else’s adulthood. Would he remember that morning? When he rose and sprinted off in his grass-stained sneakers, he was a kid again.

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Ten minutes later she hears Rafi’s voice calling “yasher koach!” from the front row, and then other voices calling the same congratulatory phrase, and the crowd gets to its feet. Steven walks around to the front of the table; people surround him. (“So to be a Jew,” he had concluded, “is to practice separation: constant, difficult, against nature—against nature is the whole point; Jew from gentile, kosher from treif, shabbes from hoi, hametz from matzah, and hardest of all, man from woman when Torah says we’re supposed to be separate. The picture of Israel and the separated sea makes this clear: creation and Exodus and Judaism itself are all shoulderings-apart by brute force of two buildings that are collapsing into each other, two landslides that want to slam together at the valley bottom, just as the sea wants to close; by creating the world, God makes an opening at the center of chaos; it takes transcendental force to hold it open. This picture of Exodus is Torah’s own commentary on Judaism, on creation—a hole in the water, literally a hole in the water; a fleeting gap in chaos.”) She attaches herself to the outside of the group and moves slowly toward Steven. She buries the tip of her right index finger (stiff-straight like a lollipop) in the center of her pursed lips and watches through lowered eyes. It takes a long time for everyone to be gone, except for Jackie and Steven and Rafi and a group of four men over to the right.

Finally they are eye to eye and she says, “I never knew you were such a celebrity.”

The room is overbright with the sun in the south windows echoing off the white vinyl floor; Jackie’s face is washed-out in the glare, but he has never seen her eyes so festive.

“Can I have your autograph?”

He smiles. “After shabbes.”

“You look good in that suit. I liked your speech.”

He’s limp and tired and sweaty. “Thank you. Thanks for coming. I want to talk. Can we talk? Later?” Removing his yarmulke, smoothing his hair, pinning it back in place.

“Sure; what for? Why not now?” Innocent smile.

Rafi Melman’s own smile is slipping and he is struggling to hitch it up. “Do you know Rabbi Melman? . . . I want to ask you out on a date. Would you mind? And apologize for being so nasty to you the other night. It was uncalled for. I’m sorry.”

Her usual chewing-gum delivery: “Sure, we could go out. When?” And she swings one foot forward, tipping the shoe back onto the heel, pivoting the toe side to side, watching it in mock concentration. Her powdery floral perfume encompassing them.

“I’ll call you?”

“Sure, okay. But when do you want to take me out?” She folds her arms into the hollow of her back, each hand grasping the opposite arm.

Among the four men in the corner, the conversation is developing gaps and pauses, starting to slip and slide and send out feelers.

Silence. Then they both speak at once, then back off, and Steven says: “How about tonight? After dark. Around nine?”

“Can’t tonight. Doing something with your pal Klaus. Got a date.”

“Well,” smiling, “break it.”

“Why should I?” Smiling back.

The other conversation has stopped and everyone is listening.

“Because I told you to?”

“So what if you did?”

They are aware for the first time of the air conditioner blandly droning.

“Well, y’know?” she says. “Okay. Pick me up at nine. Meet me out front of my building, on the sidewalk. Okay? At nine.”

“I’ll be there.”

_____________

 

Barukh Merkan, too, had been in the audience—one row behind Jackie on the opposite side, with the curly reddish-brown beard he had grown to hide the shallow gash that cut his face from cheek to chin, then down the chin and part way down his neck: a wound he had gotten near Kontum, crouching behind a dike as he prepared for an assault on a treeline several hundred yards away. He often wondered whether his memory of the scene moments before mortar fire hit (the word “incoming!” still slithered like a gasping black snake through his dreams) could possibly be right. The rain had just stopped; high overhead, a towering rainbow spanned majestically (like the half-moon footbridge of a Japanese garden) the brilliant olive-gold gap between billowing cloud-banks—rose, lavender, bronze; impossibly beautiful. Or maybe it was only the strange-acting painkillers they’d given him during that first week that had leached backward and doctored his memories. In any case, even without the beard, his face was different from the face Steven had known, sunk into itself like an undermined meadow.

Merkan has been watching Steven for a year, haunting the edges of his visual field at lectures and divrei Torah. Then Steven went away for a few months and Merkan had lost track of him; but this Wednesday he had come all the way uptown after work to the office of the Beit Shlomo synagogue to find out whether it were true that, as he had heard from a friend, Steven was back and would be lecturing on shabbes. Of all his old pupils, Steven was the only one Merkan thought about.

Merkan was ten years older than his former student, but Eskanazzi was now a rabbi, celebrated for brilliance, and Merkan was sinking deeper and deeper into depression. He had been on the point of approaching Steven several times over the last year. He doubted Steven would remember him.

He had been a part-time teacher, part-time graduate student in physics. On his return from the marines and thirteen months in Vietnam he had resumed his Orthodox Judaism but felt too old and had forgotten too much to go back to graduate school. He got a job as a mechanic at a Porsche-Audi dealership in the West Fifties. The job was supposed to be temporary, but seven years later he was still at it.

The unassuming usefulness of the work pleased him. In his denim coveralls and red beard and combat boots and dirty railroad-engineer’s cap over his yarmulke he looked like a held-over hippie. But the country and its culture in the spring of 1978 were overwhelming him—the nation’s indifference to the death of South Vietnam, to the brutal Communist regime, to the trickle of escapees putting to sea in rowboats. He prayed at a small local synagogue, except when Steven was lecturing at Beit Shlomo, and thought about suicide. Suicide al kiddush ha’Shem, to sanctify God’s name, somewhere right in the center of Manhattan—right in front of the New York Times—to protest American indifference. Like the Buddhist monks who immolated themselves in the early 60′s; then people would have to notice. If only briefly. But suicide was strongly forbidden in Jewish law and he had to talk to a rabbi, and anyway he was depressed and knew it, and worried that he would be killing himself merely because of mental illness, which would make the whole thing morally moot.

So he lay flat on the sofa that had come with the apartment, its yellowish foam rubber and steel-gray springs exposed through a tear down the center of a faded peony—with the disheveled pages of the Times sprawled in death poses open-armed on his chest. Occasionally he would hold up a sheet and read a paragraph, then let it flop back down. He kept hearing in his mind the slow wistful garland of a Glenn Miller tune from his father’s time, translucent clarinets and trombones trailing gracefully like a girl’s fingers through the water. You could peer through that melody as if it were stained glass and see a different America on the other side, a country that stood by its friends and honored promises. But he knew he was depressed, considered himself ill, and he tried not to take himself too seriously. Found that hard to accomplish.

_____________

 

That evening, Steven and Jackie walk first to a flower shop on Amsterdam that is open late on Saturday. He’d wanted to buy her flowers but didn’t know what to pick, hoped she would choose. Into the bright fragrant mistiness where lemon-yellow lilies slouched deliriously in the humming pale-pink fluorescent light. She takes a rose from a bucket, holds the clasped bud before her lips as waterdrops slide significantly down the stem and leap to the floor.

In the corner a small black-and-white TV (no one watching) reruns a sitcom. Bursts of blurred, staticky laughter. They leave with peach rosebuds and tightly-furled purple irises.

“You know how two little kids,” he tells Rafi afterward, “can be nasty to each other or sweet—either of these two things, totally nasty or totally sweet, but nothing in between? Even too sweet, slightly phony? Well, tonight we were sweet to each other.”

They go to a kosher coffee shop. They talk about people they knew growing up in Manhasset. The conversation picks up speed. Eventually their fast hushed words are running side by side. She asks if he remembers that cool and elegant Sunday morning when they sat together on her back steps. He does.

“And the day when we were teenagers and you wound up in my bedroom and ran out on me?”

“Yes,” he says, “I remember that too. You better believe it.”

Without having exactly planned to, he tells her about Barukh Merkan. How Merkan once stood for ten minutes with chalk in hand repeatedly preparing to write, but not writing as he explained something over and over so that everyone would understand. A boringly conscientious, painfully sincere teacher. How he’d like to talk to Merkan, but doesn’t know where he is. For the first time that evening his voice wobbles and fades.

She suggests they look him up in the local phonebook. Maybe he’s moved to Manhattan; lots of people do. He takes the directory from the booth in the corner and they spread it, spongy and plump, on the table between them. Many Merkans. No Barukhs. Their heads inches apart. He wants to kiss along the top edge of her forehead, where the shimmering black hairs launch. Instead he puffs gently, nudging a momentary path. She smiles. There are four B Merkans and then a B.B., then a B.J., then a Bernard. “Do it again,” she says. She shuts her eyes and presents her forehead.

Merkan is sitting on his sofa in the dark. At dusk he had stood to recite the afternoon and evening prayers, then lit a havdoleh candle to mark the end of the Sabbath, then switched on a table lamp.

Then switched it off. Once he said “1978” aloud and shook his head.

Steven shepherds Jackie from the coffee shop to an ice-cream place that still looks like 1970: orange seats, mustard yellow walls, shiny brown fake-wood tabletops. It’s nearly midnight when they reach her building and stand together in the stuffy hallway that smells faintly of canned peas and she severs a rosebud from its stem with a sharp fingernail. Standing very close she threads the stem through his buttonhole, using both hands to guide it, with a delicate sharp bend of her wrists . . . which leaves him shaking, a tropical storm—humid darkness—clotting inside him.

“So you’re not allowed to touch me?” Dry teasing murmur. And he says, “It’s not a matter of ‘allowed.’ ” Hoarse; unsteady. “Not exactly.”

“Just your own weird kind of macho.”

“Maybe.” Thunderclouds inside, pressing outward. With a sudden awkward move he grabs her two arms up high, through her sleeves; he squeezes hard. She only looks at him. Ironic eyebrows. He squeezes harder. Then abruptly he lets go and steps back. She reaches up with both arms and rests her clasped hands atop her head—elbows forward, one hand lying gracefully on the other. The undersides of her upper arms facing forward. Archly appraising. He reaches both hands deep into his pockets and stares at his shoes, concentrating on each deep breath the way he used to as a child when he had to keep from vomiting.

She lowers her arms.

_____________

 

He looks away, toward the far end of the hall. “I have a theory, too,” she says. “I mean you have a theory, which you told about this morning. I liked it; it was good. The part I understood.”

“Thank you.”

“I have a theory, too. I’ll bet you didn’t know girls could have theories.”

“I’ve heard of such things happening. In—y’know—distant lands.” His smile becoming less tense.

“My theory is about sex. Maybe I’ll tell it to you sometime.”

“Maybe I’d like to hear it sometime.”

She fishes through the purse slung over her shoulder and finds (after a moment’s rustling and tinkling) her key and opens the door. There is Klaus on the sofa, in a shiny rust-colored sweater, frowning at his magazine, disdaining to look up. Steven’s unsteady voice asks her if he can see her again. She says, “Sure.”

“Tomorrow night?”

“Okay.”

He tells her he had a great time. To his shock she playfully curtsies, revealing more of Klaus’s rust-orangeness in the background; he withdraws toward the elevator; with a whoosh and a click her door is closed. Out front he stands motionless on the sidewalk looking reproachfully toward her apartment. Just macho, she had said, just your own weird kind of macho—and he had agreed? What the hell was he thinking? What was he talking about? He wants to tear back inside, upstairs, bang on her door and tell her no, that was wrong. Wrong! I didn’t mean it. Didn’t mean it!

A cab draws up, a huge ’73 Chevrolet like a melted candybar, oozily smooth. Loose bumper juddering aggressively. A girl and a dog get out.

At length he starts for home.

He has almost reached the end of the next block when he hears fast footsteps behind and then beside him. “Just play games, huh, rabbi!” A long rolled “r,” with contempt. Breathing heavily from the fast trot. The light changes and Steven starts across, Klaus alongside: “Never occurs to you that this is maybe, yes, an ectual girl. Ectual girl! For you an object. A game! An object. A toy!”

“I don’t think we have anything to say to each other,” Steven says grimly, still walking. And adds, “You’re full of it.”

“You don’t like Chairmons very much, do you. Rabbi.” His question swallowed by panting. “How did you guess,” Steven mutters.

“Can a German have human dignity, rabbi? Can a German fall in love? Not a German. German don’t qualify. Never a German. A German is no human being, correct, rabbi? Germans have no heart. Germans have no love. Correct, rabbi? Have I got it right? Why do you hate me, just—”

“Look,” Steven interrupts, stopping still—but then he says nothing. He looks at the sidewalk. “We have nothing to say to each other.”

They walk on. The silence is about to slip and Steven speaks again to preempt: “You want me to say I don’t hate you? Fine, I don’t hate you.” His words start soft but grow louder. “Want me to say I love you? Fine, I love you. Fine. I love you. Okay? I love you! Only,” shouting now, stopping still, “Keep your fing hands. . . .”

And he stops himself, skids to a choked, shuddering halt; turns and walks off.

Klaus doesn’t move.

“You don’t know what it means,” he shouts after Steven. “Love, hah, you don’t know what it means, you don’t know what it means!” Steven looks back and Klaus is doubled over at the waist. He pauses. Klaus straightens partially and digs both hands deep into the new-green leaves of the privet hedge along the sidewalk, clenching his fists tight and pulling back violently with a rough moan—stripping the leaves off as the knobbed wiry branches pass through his fingers. He lifts both hands high, and hangs that way motionless in Steven’s mind as Steven turns and heads back uptown.

_____________

About the Author

David Gelernter is a professor of computer science at Yale.




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